Whitney Houston a Role Model(ish)?
I was on the treadmill at the gym the day after Whitney Houston died and happened to glance up at one of the overhead tvs. It was tuned to CNN. On it was the late songstress’ photo, with a headline that read: Whitney Houston a Role Model for Young Black Teens. I nearly fell backward off the machine. Really? The same platinum-selling singer who (allegedly) got addicted to crack, raised her daughter in an (allegedly) drug-addicted household, and just lost her life to what is believed to have been a prescription drug/alcohol overdose? (Pretty sure that last part is confirmed.)
But that’s the problem with headlines. They often leave out the pertinent verbs. Like, “was.” She was a role model for young black teens. When I switched my own treadmill’s tv from a circa 1992 Law & Order episode to the CNN story, I discovered the story was, in fact, correct. She was, after all, the first black woman to appear on the cover of Seventeen magazine. Listed by Guinness World Records as the most awarded female artist of all time (including six Grammies, 16 Billboard Music Awards, 23 American Music Awards, and on and on… 411 in total). She founded the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children, a nonprofit organization that funds projects to help homeless, AIDS-infected, and other needy children.
And let’s not forget her biggest crowning achievement: she was my first real live concert. Everyone has one, and she was mine. In my 12-year-old world, there was Madonna. Jacko. Bruce. And Whitney.
I wasn’t a young black teen, but I didn’t need to be. She was larger than life, and I’d have given my right arm and my last pair of Z Cavaricci’s to be her.
Good thing I was long past impressionable age when I caught her reality show, some 20 years later. I was lounging around my best friend’s house over Christmas break when I saw it (incidentally, she was with me at that concert. We both still have our Whitney pin souvenirs). Anyway, the show was Being Bobby Brown, I think? 2005 or 2006-ish? The episode I saw was pretty much horrifying. See, I’d somehow missed all the buzz up to that point about Whitney and Bobby’s drug habits, but it didn’t take long for me to get up to speed. In that episode, Whitney and that standout spouse of hers were on a shopping spree with their daughter, Bobbi Kristina. It was a trainwreck. The woman was positively erratic, bouncing around the store, kind of incoherent. He flashed giant wads of cash (gangsta-style) while they berated each other, boasting of various things that nobody could understand, shouting things at clerks. I remember watching that daughter, and thinking, “Oh, that girl. What a life she must lead.” She had my immediate sympathy.
Because let me tell you. That gorgeous, classy lady I saw onstage was gone, and I’m even accounting for the glitter that fades when you get a glimpse of someone in everyday life.
Today, you’ve got fans all over the Internet crying foul on anyone who points out the tarnish on her star. And in a weird way, I’m reminded of that incident on the Cooper River Bridge a couple weeks ago. The outpouring of “you don’t know what he’s going through” comments from anyone with access to Twitter and Facebook. No, they’re right. But most of us do know that parking your car at the top of a bridge and ramming it back and forth for a couple hours is a bonehead move. Doesn’t mean you don’t feel for the guy.
Same with Whitney. I don’t know what she went through either. I’m just a writer in a swirling, crowded pool of other writers whose only experience with the spotlight is sitting in the chair at the dentist’s office (and the time I sat next to Evander Holyfield as a seat-filler at the GQ Man of the Year awards). But I do know the difference between a role model and an icon. An icon’s larger than life, “an object of uncritical devotion.” Her voice made her that, no question.
But a role model shows us how to play the hand we’re dealt, and do it well. CNN was right. She was that. But I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say it’s okay to call it like it was—a fall from grace by way of some really shitty choices. The alternative is telling the next generation that sometimes, bad choices just happen to you—you know, depending on what you’re going through.
I’m betting Robert Downey, Jr. isn’t peddling that to his kids.